Because the behavior was executed passive-aggressively (and often comically so that it could be written off as "just kidding!") and increased so gradually, it wasn’t obvious for a long time.
And it took me even longer to realize that she was often aware of her behavior and meant to be insulting. (Also, I just thought the problem was me, that I was being too sensitive or getting too upset about routine annoyances in life—a belief which she subtly encouraged.)
She would also kick me when I was already down, something I find particularly hard to forgive in anybody.
At one point, I called a rav to ask him about the halachot of telling people to stop a problematic behavior. I knew you're supposed to be careful not to embarrass them or be too harsh, but I wanted to know if I was missing something because I wanted to put an end to the dynamic, but I wanted to do it according to halachah.
To my shock, the rav told me to gradually stop speaking with her. Not in a mean way, but just make myself unavailable: not call her anymore, not answer the phone every time she calls, keep any conversation with her very short, etc.
He said something like, "She doesn't really like you. She's not interested in being friends with you."
At first, that hurt me and I tried to defend myself by explaining how nice I was trying to be to her, but he quickly explained that he reached this conclusion based on her behavior:
If you like someone, you don't treat them the way she was treating me.
Whether I deserve it or not, whether I'm likable or not, is a separate issue.
He pointed out that I had already tried to adjust my behavior and she still treated me the same way.
Therefore, she does not like me. She does not want to be friends with me.
So why should I interact with someone who does not like me?
This might sound obvious or petty now, but I was younger then. Plus, every shiur I'd ever heard about dealing with others stressed the importance of maintaining connections with people, including really difficult people.
Socially, this is also encouraged.
Rejection is bad! Connection & unconditional love & giving the benefit of the doubt is the only way to go!
So I couldn't bring myself to follow the rav's recommendations, a refusal I later regretted.
Instead, I decided to be more assertive, write her a letter explaining my feelings, and be a listener rather than a talker.
Yet as is common with consistently dysfunctional people, being assertive or compassionate or passive didn’t help at all.
In other words, it doesn't matter how you behave; they will still get you some how.
So for example, being assertive was met with a strange response that I still don't understand.
If I would say nicely, "Why did you label me as [negative label]?" or "Why are you blaming me for what happened when I clearly told you I tried to physically exit the situation, but literally could not?", my question would be met with total silence.
No casual, "Oh, sorry, didn't mean it like that, didn't realize, sorry", no "What do you mean?", nothing. Just an amused silence.
Or she would suddenly need to get off the phone.
She was taking Prozac, which I understand causes emotional blunting, but despite reading up on it, I still don't know all the ins and outs of it.
Does Prozac mean she is incapable of understanding how her behavior is affecting others?
Does Prozac mean she cannot comprehend and therefore cannot answer a direct question?
Does Prozac mean that she honestly doesn't realize that calling people names or crowing accusations at them is inappropriate?
I honestly can't figure out how she was experiencing things from her side.
So I simply stopped answering the phone when she called and basically cut off all contact. (Yes, I tried other things first.)
At one point, she sent me what she clearly thought was a very nice note; it showed great understanding of difficulties I might be struggling with, yet it clearly never occurred to her that certain aspects of her behavior might be the problem.
In other words, she blamed my distance on my own issues, not her increasingly problematic behaviors.
But I meant well.
It happened because of all the shiurim I’d heard and books I’d read exhorting the vital importance of maintaining a connection to fellow Jews, even if they’re very difficult or unpleasant. Often other friends, who listen to the same shiurim and read the same books, also encourage you on this path.
I’d gotten the impression that if I didn’t do this, then it was like I was preventing Mashiach from coming.
The thing is, this “Connection, connection, connection!” hashkafah ignores pages of Torah literature like Kli Yakar, Orchot Tzaddikim, Pele Yoetz, Pirke Avot, and more that exhorts you to avoid people who consistently act against halacha due to the bad influence they’ll eventually exert over you.
And indeed, I saw this happening in myself.
So I finally put a stop to it.
Abusive behavior is against halacha.
(However, you can have what Miriam Adahan calls "a neshamah connection" and pray for that person instead of dealing with him or her directly.)
Orchot Tzaddikim & Pele Yoetz also stress the importance of being friends with those of good middot and staying away from those with bad middot.
No one is perfect, but some people are working on themselves and some people are not.
Neshamah Connection When a Direct Connect Simply isn't Feasible
Also, I knew that she’d never really had anyone who truly cared about her. (Well, maybe just the family housekeeper and only when she was very young.)
I also knew that her marriage was very unhappy (although I do not think she's totally blameless for the unhappiness) and she also faces other difficulties in her life too.
So it was easy to give her the benefit of the doubt.
Yet despite what the Pollyanna-proponents would have you believe, giving her the benefit of the doubt did not help me avoid the consequences of her negative behavior; the hurtful barbs she shot my way still hurt.
However, when I davened for her, I could feel a lot of compassion and warmth that I couldn’t feel when directly under attack from her.
And whenever I asked Hashem how to relate to her, the message was:
“Be kind” and “Keep davening for her.”
But neither means that I needed to maintain a direct relationship with her.
"Be kind" I assumed means not to retaliate or match her mistreatment, or carry out any form of revenge. Fine. So I kept davening. I don’t know if it’s helping her, but I definitely feel genuine compassion toward her and don’t feel nearly as irritated when I do think about her.
Finally, I got a message in hitbodedut to contact her and briefly and emotionally explain why I’d cut off contact with her.
Her response told me that some of what I thought were passive-aggressive jabs on her part was actually the result of her warped value system.
Meaning, behavior that Judaism considers unkind was considered neutral or acceptable by her and she honestly didn’t realize it was wrong. So I was feeling insulted by the way she perceived me, but she didn't see it as an insult because she thought it was okay.
Therefore, I got some insight into what was motivating her problematic behavior.
However, it's a problem to regularly associate with people who embrace anti-Torah viewpoints (even if they consider themselves frum), especially when they refuse to listen and especially if they're constantly forcing their warped attitude on you.
I didn't make this up. Many Torah sources exhort us to distance ourselves from people who sin continuously with no remorse.
While we tend to think of this in regards of mitzvot between Man and God (like Shabbat, kashrut, etc), there are prohibitions & mitzvot between people that are equally important like:
- the mitzvah to give tzedakah
- the mitzvah to judge another person favorably
- the prohibition against verbal abuse (ona'at devarim)
- the prohibition against humiliating another person
- the prohibition against slandering or rumor-mongering
And so on.
This kind of thing can get incredibly petty and nitpicky, dragging you down into pettiness too.
When I talk to Hashem, I ask about really important things, but also seemingly petty stuff too.
Because of how profoundly Hashem cherishes us, even the small stuff is okay to discuss with Him.
In fact, much of the reason why Hashem throws petty stuff our way is because He wants us to talk to Him about it.